Two days after they did so privately at Saturday’s memorial service attended by dignitaries from around the NBA, the Wolves said their public farewell to president of basketball operations and coach Flip Saunders with Monday’s pregame video tribute.
It pushed back the game’s usual opening tip, in a game that provided a final minute that never seemed to end. When it was finally over, that minute included two lengthy video reviews, an inadvertent official’s whistle and two jump balls before the Wolves lost for the first time after starting the season with victories in Los Angeles and Denver.
Leading 34-17 late in the first quarter and trailing 99-89 with 5:40 left, the Wolves appeared to tie the score on Andrew Wiggins’ tip-in with 54 seconds remaining. But officials ruled basket interference, a call that was upheld by an NBA video review conducted in New Jersey. The Wolves never scored after that.
“The game is not decided on one play,” said Wolves rookie center Karl-Anthony Towns, who was called for a foul after he leaped for one of those jump balls with the Blazers up 103-101 with 12 seconds left. “It’s a lot of plays. It culminates.”
Most of those plays turned against the Wolves in the game’s final minute.
But so many things went so well early, namely leads of 8-1 and 34-17 before the Blazers and their All-Star point guard Damian Lillard reversed course. The Wolves found enough emotion and energy to forge those early leads, then possibly just ran out of both against a Blazers team that started the season 1-2 but received a decisive 34-point performance from Lillard on Monday.
The game’s opening tip came 30 minutes later than usual after coaching peers, Wolves players and coaches and others who knew Saunders well offered their praise and observations in two videos segments. Those testimonials were supplemented with a live performance of Leonard Cohen’s song "Hallelujah" that started quietly accompanied only by Tim Mahoney’s guitar and voice, was joined by a lone cello player and finished backed by a gospel choir.
When the overhead scoreboard showed a series of still photographs featuring Saunders, Towns – whom Saunders selected No. 1 overall in the June draft – looked upward from the court, tracks of tears streaming down his face highlighted by the scoreboard’s glow.
“I was drained from the beginning,” Towns said afterward. “I was crying the whole time, the whole pregame. I was emotionally drained coming out. I just tried to use my energy in a good way.”
He and his teammates did so for the game’s opening 11 minutes, but ultimately couldn’t sustain it after Lillard and the Blazers changed the game with a 32-19 second quarter.
“It was a tough day, but we’re not going to use that as an excuse,” Wolves interim head coach Sam Mitchell said. “It’s our third game since Coach passed, but it was a tough day. We had a chance to win the basketball game…we just made bad mistakes at the wrong time.”
Did the Wolves ultimately run emotionally empty eight days after they learned in the middle of a practice that their leader had died nearly five months after he was diagnosed with cancer?
“I don’t know,” said Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio, who approached his fifth career triple-double with a 12-point, nine-assist, nine-rebound game. “It has been tough, but we are professionals here. We have to do our job. Everybody goes through a lot of pain sometimes. Of course, it has been tough. But we want to go out there and compete. We did it tonight for a little bit, but not the whole game.”
Before the opening tip, NBA coaches current and former -- Gregg Popovich, Phil Jackson, Larry Bird, Doc Rivers, Pat Riley, George Karl, Randy Wittman, Dave Joerger, Stan Van Gundy, Fred Hoiberg and P.J. Carlesimo -- spoke in taped interviews.
“Flip was what I call a `lifer,’ “ Popovich said. “He loved the game. He respected the game like nobody’s business. He was all in. He obviously was somebody who all of us respected very much.”
They spoke about Saunders’ offensive ingenuity and innovation as well as his lovable quirks, such as very late-night phone calls and after-midnight television shopping-network binges.
“My wife remembers the phone calls at 3 in the morning, thinks he’s dialing my cell phone when he’s dialing the house phones,” Wittman said.
Some of his former players -- Cleveland star Kevin Love , former NBA players Sam Cassell, Chauncey Billups and Mark Madsen -- and longtime confidant Tom Izzo remembered him as well.
Conspicuous in their absence was former University of Minnesota teammate and longtime Wolves management partner Kevin McHale as well as Wolves star Kevin Garnett, who was too overcome with emotion to record a message. He alternately looked up at the arena scoreboard and down at the floor during the pregame ceremony, rocking from one foot to the other all the time.
Garnett was asked Monday morning about another emotional night forthcoming.
“I think it’s going to be an emotional year, if not an emotional lifetime,” he said.